Slavery, like the fog, comes in on cat’s feet. For all the analogies to the black experience, shackled suddenly in Africa and shipped on the Middle Passage, Jewish slavery and hard times through the years has been different; loss of freedom, dignity and destiny comes slowly, even gently, golden eras slipping into lesser ones, almost inexplicably, and undeserved.
History teaches humility and pause. For all of our faith in politicians, saying that this American president, or that president, was “the best friend Israel ever had,” let’s remember that a pharaoh was once the best friend the Children of Israel ever had, feeding us in times of famine, let alone elevating Joseph to heights never achieved by Jews even in the United States. Life in Poland, Germany and Russia once was beautiful for Jews, until it wasn’t. The Zionist dream was once imagined to be not only beautiful but medicinal, healing the millennial-old disease of anti-Semitism. And so it was, until it wasn’t.
Just as the ancient sages found themselves on Passover night discussing the story of slavery and redemption through the night until the dawning, we can easily imagine ourselves discussing our modern Jewish dilemmas through the night, until we, like they, must be reminded that sometimes it is just time for prayer.
Dawn and twilight are indistinguishable, if the moment is without perspective. In some ways, we’re living through twilight, the seven lean years of Joseph’s dream, between the tightening economy and international callousness to Israel’s predicament. It is a callousness that has exploded into attacks on Jews, violently and verbally even in the United States. When 11 Muslim students at the University of California Irvine were arrested recently for shouting down Israel’s Ambassador Michael Oren, it wasn’t even news in most Jewish papers, so commonplace has such behavior become.
Nevertheless, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech in Washington this past week was a reminder that maybe we’re missing the unfolding dawn because of the early morning chill.
The prime minister’s father turned 100 the other day. “When he was born,” said his son, “the czars ruled Russia, the British Empire spanned the globe and the Ottomans ruled the Middle East. During his lifetime, all of these empires collapsed, others rose and fell, and the Jewish destiny swung from despair to a new hope — the rebirth of the Jewish state. For the first time in 2,000 years, a sovereign Jewish people could defend itself against attack.”
Before that, added Netanyahu, “we were subjected to unremitting savagery.” There will be acts of savagery again, alas, as there will be humiliation and a loneliness that other generations knew as a constant, certainly the generations of Egypt. To understand the seder is to know that morning comes; history is not happenstance. We can defend ourselves. We’re in for a fight. But Elijah’s at the door, and the Angel of Death won’t make it to the end of Chad Gadya.